MP Responsible for Recent Holocaust Scandal Dogged by Earlier Remarks about Humane Gas Chambers

MP Responsible for Recent Holocaust Scandal Dogged by Earlier Remarks about Humane Gas Chambers

Photo: Valdas Rakutis

The gas chamber was a “very humane” method for exterminating Jews in the Holocaust. Conservative member of the Lithuanian parliament Valdas Rakutis issued this and similar statements in writing in academic discussions two decades ago, the Lithuanian newspaper Lietuvos rytas reports.

Does the MP, who just recently resigned his chairmanship of a parliamentary commission because of controversial and scandalous statements about the Holocaust, think differently now? Even though he resigned, he said he hadn’t said anything wrong and hadn’t wanted to, and was forced to remove himself by the party leadership.

Rakutis, a qualified historian who actually still is at least formally the chairman of the parliament’s Commission on Battles for Freedom and State Historical Memory, hasn’t renounced these opinions expressed earlier. He said Jews were murdered in the gas chambers with less physical suffering than when they were tortured and shot to death, so his statement was correct. He qualifies this by saying this is true if you could compare things “in whole.”

Special Lesson for Soldiers

Rakutis made this shocking statement in his own writing when he was a teacher at the General Jonas Žemaitis Military Academy teaching young Lithuanian soldiers. That was back in 2000 and 2001 when the academy and society beyond was involved in heated and impassioned discussions on whether to include a lesson about the Holocaust in its educational curriculum for soldiers.

The historian Eimantas Meiulus, who was also a teacher at the academy at that time and a senior correspondent at the Lithuanian History Institute, drew up this lesson as a special academic work and methodical method.

The historian’s work is called “The Holocaust, or Lithuania’s Tragedy (1941-1944).” The main accents and ideological thrust of this work is basically laid out in its introduction. Many of its assertions sound as if they were written today rather than two decades ago.

“Unfortunately, the majority of the public [in Lithuania] still totally avoid the topic of the Holocaust and are reluctant to admit historical mistakes and crimes committed by their compatriots. This leads to problems both domestically and in the international arena. The Lithuanian people are not better or worse than other peoples. That needs to be realized and taken to heart. Then we can free ourselves of many complexes and understand our own history as the past which cannot be changed, rather than as the present over which we can still exert influence. It will become clear that history places a burden of moral responsibility upon us and teaches us,” Meilus wrote.

The historian, of course, considers the issue of responsibility connected with a portion of Lithuanians taking part in the mass murder of Jews: is there some sort of responsibility besides that of each individual murderer whose personal culpability can be demonstrated by objective information and the courts?

“The nation, I believe, should feel at least moral responsibility for the actions of our compatriots,” the author wrote, and then raises the problem of judging the Provisional Government of 1941, the June Uprising and structures subordinate to the Nazis in general, an issue which hasn’t been resolved even now.

Some politicians–primarily the current ruling Conservatives–and their supporters categorically assert there is no problematic uprising or relationship between all structures with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Meilus, however, says “anti-Semitic statements,” which are sometimes repeated during the present day as well, remain a “compromising blemish” upon the Provisional Government, so that, for example, when we proclaim it the successor of the entire Republic of Lithuania [from the interwar period], we have to also lay claim to “all responsibility” for what it did and did not do, and to “all citizens which belonged to it.”

Meilus emphasized that in presenting multifaceted and more detailed information about the Holocaust, Lithuanian participation in it and the reasons for it, he wants to encourage young soldiers to think about stereotypes and anti-Semitism, but more importantly, he wants them to realize that this wasn’t just the tragedy of Jews or of Lithuanians, but of all of Lithuania.

“The most tragic thing is that such a great moral blemish remains, and society has lost its moral compass. Clearly this loss wasn’t due just to the Holocaust, but was the consequence especially of the occupations (the Soviet and Nazi occupations, but the Holocaust has had a very great significance for this as well,” Meilus wrote.

Extraordinarily Heavy Criticism

This lesson was approved [for teaching]. Before that, however, different professional historians and officials in the field of the military and military education had their say about it in writing and words. Their beliefs and opinions, of course, were strongly at odds.

One of the main members of the commission of historians convened by Lithuanian presidential decree for researching the Holocaust in Lithuania, Lithuanian-American historian Saulius Sužiedėlis, only had good things to say about the proposed lesson.

He only expressed slight reservations about a few of the details and facts, while the text as a whole left “a very good impression” on him, “especially considering the allergic reactions the topic of the Holocaust causes among some of our people.”

Saulius Sužiedėlis said this work required “a significant amount of civic courage.”

Some of Lithuania’s most important historians at the time also responded to Meilus’s work positively.

At the same time others expressed a highly negative opinion officially, including deputy national defense minister Edmundas Simanaitis, a representative of the right, who was finishing in his post then.

He said Meilus’s lesson was foisting the label of criminal upon the Lithuanian nation.

“Any attempts to talk or write about the Holocaust as disconnected from the Bolshevik crimes of genocide which rocked the Lithuanian nation are equal to the falsification of history, and are therefore totally unacceptable as a means to educate the soldiers of the Lithuanian military,” the deputy minister explained.

He repeated over and over that it was “flawed” in general to talk about the Holocaust “based on the view of one group with vested interests” separately from the fact that the main victim of historical processes at that time, he alleged, was “the Lithuanian nation.”

In his response, the deputy minister several times appealed to one of the main theses of a large segment of Lithuania society which is repeated to the present day, the idea that some Lithuanians took part in the Holocaust because the Bolsheviks were guilty and their ranks included many Jews.

“The beginning of the first Bolshevik occupation and the resistance by the Lithuanian people to it, and also the role played by the ethnic minorities of the Republic of Lithuania (Jews, Russians, Poles) during this period, have not been revealed academically and objectively. This is extraordinarily important to do in writing about the Holocaust,” Simanaitis wrote.

Valdas Rakutis’s written objections to Meilus’s lecture went in the same general direction; Rakutis presented over a dozen points on specific passages.

Rakutis took his colleague to task saying the latter had engaged in too much “moralizing,” his text was “overly emotional” and “unobjective,” and Meilus had assumed the “position of knower of who was good and who was evil.”

“The goal of the work was to explain the reasons behind and facts of the phenomenon, rather than to confess sins morally–that’s something the perpetrators themselves need to do, not we who live 50 years later. Based on that same reasoning, we could accuse contemporary Americans of the genocide of the Indians during the time of Columbus, because they are also white,” the current member of parliament wrote.

The main point of contention, Rakutis stressed, was that the author, Meilus, allegedly only examined and paid attention to the attitude Lithuanians held towards Jews and the possible motives of Lithuanians.

“When the Jews greeted the Red Army joyously, they ‘were behaving egoistically and instinctually in way that, it seems, many people would act in the same situation,’ but the reaction by Lithuanians to this ‘natural behavior’ was a crime?” Rakutis asked rhetorically citing passages from Meilus’s text.

It’s clear Rakutis is repeating here the popular claim Jewish participation in repressions against Lithuanians “caused” some Lithuanians to take part in the mass murder of Jews, and if this doesn’t serve to “justify” the Holocaust, it at least helps “explain” it and makes it “understandable.”

It’s interesting as well Rakutis took the opportunity to express reservations about the legitimacy of the Jewish state in the Near East here as well, telling Meilus this was “a sufficiently disputed issue.”

Rakutis also criticized Meilus for the latter’s negative take on the Lithuanian coup d’etat of 1926 and the dictatorship of Antanas Smetona, taking issue with Meilus’s assertion authoritarianism facilitated the occupation and destruction of the Lithuanian state.

Rakutis reserved his harshest criticism, however, for the issue of Nazi gas chambers, and explained it in this manner: “The gas chambers were a very humane method of killing, if we can say such a thing in general.”

Rakutis was apparently responding here to Meilus’s explanation of the methods used to murder Jews in German-occupied territories including in Lithuania. Meilus had spoken about concentration camps as death factories: “Jews were murdered at all concentration camps, not merely in gas chambers, but also in other, the most sadistic ways, without pity for children, women or the elderly.”

It looks as if Rakutis here decided to correct what he felt was his mistaken colleague, saying gas chambers were “very humane” and not “the most sadistic” means for mass murder.

No Retraction of Horrific Statements

It’s worth noting Rakutis recently caused wide scandal when he published an article on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in which he felt the need to remind the public that among those who murdered the Jews of Lithuanian, some were Jews themselves, and that Jews had collaborated in Soviet repression.

After not just the Jewish community but a large portion of society and politicians as well as foreign ambassadors took offense, Rakutis justified himself say he hadn’t wanted to say anything bad, and had only called for a general accounting and discussion of the reasons for the Holocaust the responsibility of Holocaust perpetrators.

Despite that, he resigned as chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s Commission on Battles for Freedom and State Historical Memory, stating publicly he had been forced to resign by his party’s leadership which was frightened by the international uproar.

A portion of the public who consider themselves “defenders of history and patriotism” and a bulwark against the enemy was greatly upset at his withdrawal from the post, and whose pain and sorrow was only increased when Vidmantas Valiušaitis, an activist who holds similar views, was forced to resign as special advisor to the director of the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania because on internal disputes there.

The most radical Conservatives in parliament and members of the opposition Peasants Party who support them have come up with a plan in recent days to keep Rakutis as chairman of the commission, a post he still holds at least formally.

It turns out the parliament has to approve his resignation for it to come into effect, and the parliament’s spring session only starts on March 10.

Rakutis has also published information about his conversation with Israeli ambassador to Lithuania Yossi Avni-Levy during which, Rakutis says, all misunderstandings were definitively ironed out.

Members of the Conservative parliamentary faction and the party leadership reportedly learned about this scheme to keep Rakutis in place and immediately put pressure on Rakutis who promised them he had no intention to remain in the post.

Rakutis told he had “consulted” with the party and faction leadership and with other colleagues about these matters, but only in order to understand better how to leave the post in an orderly and procedural manner.

He said he found out his resignation has to be put to parliamentary vote, and that therefore they might vote for or against.

“But I’m planning to make any sort of political business out of this. My main intention is that the Commission continue its work, that its prestige and voice in national historical memory and education policy increase, but I don’t plan to participate actively in its work,” he said.

Asked about his comments on the lesson/academic work written by his colleage Meiulus, Rakutis affirmed he had written those comments, adding he had declined writing a comprehensive review because he basically didn’t approve of the his colleague’s principles of explanation and teaching.

Rakutis said it wasn’t just he but also some young soldiers who believed Meilus wasn’t teaching history appropriately and wasn’t focusing on what was important. He said students even wrote complaints to the leadership of the academy concerning this.

How does he now see his sharpest criticism about gas chambers? Why was than even necessary?

“Do you know what the methods for killing were? After all, people were tortured to death, murdered in general in such a way that they’d suffer more. But in the gas chamber the person doesn’t experience this suffering. So I didn’t agree with my colleague’s statements that gas chambers can be considered the most sadistic means for murder,” Rakutis explained.

He said he wanted to add to his insights the same thing he had twenty years ago, “if we can say such a thing in general,” without explaining why such thoughts were necessary then and what they might contribute. Nor did he explain how it’s possible to talk about “levels of humaneness” regarding the mass murder of people in an industrial manner.

Full article in Lithuanian here.